Olof Dreijer is shifting rhythms
“People in Sweden take a lot for granted,” Olof Dreijer chuckles when we begin our conversation. He grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, but is currently stationed in Brazil – Rio de Janeiro to be exact – after playing his first show in São Paulo and sticking around to soak up the atmosphere. “I’ve felt very inspired,” he says, smiling. “Some people I met who had moved from Europe said it was more queer-friendly than any European city, and very inclusive.”
Dreijer has nurtured a lengthy career and has long swerved interviews, choosing instead to let the music speak for itself. His first album, recorded with his sibling Karin as The Knife, was released back in 2001, and a year later they released Heartbeats, a bona fide global phenomenon that’s still imprinted on the pop consciousness over two decades later. Although The Knife disbanded in 2014, Dreijer still works regularly with Karin – he produced a slew of tracks on their latest Fever Ray album, Radical Romantics. This year, though, he stepped out of the shadows somewhat, releasing a solo 12” under his own name on Hessle Audio and a politically charged mini-album with longtime collaborator Mount Sims. For a producer who has spent so long in near anonymity, initially preferring to release his solo material under the cryptic pseudonym Oni Ayhun, it’s a surprising development.
When we speak, he’s open, self-aware and humble, laughing and going into deep thought as I prompt him to recall his earliest musical memories. There’s not much on record, despite his renown, and I’m eager to know what coaxed him towards electronic music’s fringes. “I grew up with music in the house,” he remembers. “I played with my father at parties; I played the saxophone and he played different instruments. In my generation, we grew up with public music schools, and I also had private music lessons and played in an orchestra.”
Dreijer also played in Gothenburg’s local communist band, who would perform each year on May Day. “It was funny, all these men in their 50s and 60s with blue worker’s suits playing Afro-pop. The theme of the band was from Abdullah Ibrahim. He’s quite a famous jazz pianist from South Africa, and I grew up with his music – my father used to play it.” Ibrahim helped develop the Cape Jazz sound, writing the legendary Mannenberg, South Africa’s unofficial national anthem, and his revolutionary fusion of folk and jazz lodged itself in young Dreijer’s mind. “He made amazing melodies, and his jazz was very inviting and warm. I still listen to this music.” He pauses for a second to reminisce. “Music was around like food or something.”
Dreijer dabbled in his share of high school bands: an Otis Redding influenced soul outfit (“like that film, The Commitments”), a ska band and a post-rock group, inspired by Tortoise. Shortly afterwards, he started to record his own tracks, using a simple keyboard and a portable cassette recorder. “I tried to do my own vocal house,” he laughs. “I was very into it, but I never did anything with it.” Then Dreijer taught himself to DJ, first playing disco and garage at student parties, before becoming hooked on drum’n’bass. “But I also made beats for rappers in Gothenburg,” he says with a smile. “I was doing graffiti and breakdance – it was important to do all the elements, although I didn’t rap myself.” And soon enough, Karin approached him to help develop some ideas they’d had. “I still didn’t really know how to do anything. I was still learning how to record on the computer, and they wanted to learn too. We weren’t so good at it, but we learned along the way.” So, armed with some acoustic instruments, microphones and cheap music software, they muddled their way towards an unmistakable sound.
Dreijer had never intended to be a professional musician – he and Karin had never even assumed they were really starting a band together. “I was going to become a teacher,” he admits. “I had this white saviour thing going on. I was living in the city, which is very segregated. The suburbs, where working class people and almost no white people live, are almost an hour outside the city. I thought I should go and learn the area, so I went there to work in a kindergarten for a year.” But even though he enjoyed the job, The Knife was taking up his time. “I took a break with the thought of coming back, but it just kept on like that.” For the next decade, Dreijer produced and toured incessantly, putting his own solo material on the back-burner. “I liked the idea of working with The Knife because there was somebody, Karin, asking me to do things – or, we initialised things together. But there was a clear mission.”
In 2006, things changed. Dreijer moved to Berlin and became friends with Jam Rostron, a.k.a. Planningtorock, who asked him to work on a remix of Hiding Where I’ll Find Me. “That was the first thing I finished on my own,” he says. “It was quite important, and made me think I could consider releasing my own stuff.” And although the track was never put out officially (Dreijer eventually uploaded it to his SoundCloud page), it set a process in motion. But Dreijer was still unsure how his music would be received; he was keen for it to be judged on its own merits, not lauded because he was one half of a successful avant-pop duo. He was re-examining his whole identity at the time, having returned to university to take his interest in gender and post-colonial studies to the next level. “I went into this white guilt phase,” he admits soberly. “Fortunately, it was short, because it’s not so productive. But it was, I guess, necessary.”
Dreijer was tired of the experimental scene’s stifling, white male hegemony, and wondered if it might be possible to swerve it altogether. “I wanted to see, if I released this music under a pseudonym that could be seen as a person not from Europe or the US, how will it be received?” Oni Ayhun was born, and Dreijer issued four mysterious EPs between 2008 and 2010 that dipped from genre to genre while retaining his focus on skippy melodies and unusual rhythms. “I duct taped overalls to perform in. I wanted to look like Diamanda Galás, ‘cause I was really into her at the time,” he explains. “But having a non-western name, it was… now I feel a bit embarrassed talking about it, but that was where I was at the time.” He drew a line under the project in 2015. “Nobody told me, but I understood it’s very much cultural appropriation.”
“You forget that things can be more simple and direct”
Around this time, Dreijer was working (alongside Karin as The Knife) with US-born producer Matthew Sims, a.k.a. Mount Sims, on Planningtorock’s 2010 album Tomorrow, In a Year when Sims and Dreijer were contacted by the Special Friends of the Earth organisation, a nonprofit from Trinidad based in New York. SFOTE invited the two collaborators to contribute to a global project based around the steel pan, an instrument invented on the Caribbean island in the 1930s. “The idea was to send the different steel drums out to different musicians in the world, and the music would be sold at an art market in New York to generate money for a school bus project in Trinidad.” The duo would be sent an instrument handmade by Ellie Mannette, the father of the modern steel drum, so of course they agreed. “I have no idea how to play a steel drum,” he gasps. “And we got it, and the whole situation, to say the least, felt very post-colonial.” At this stage in his career, and in his own personal evolution, Dreijer was wary of approaching this from the wrong angle.
Well aware of Sweden’s history of colonisation, he was also concerned with rising nationalism back home. Confronting the populist right-wing party Sweden Democrats’ use of folk music to validate their message, he and Sims wanted to show a different side of history. “From what I’ve understood, the medieval times were very multiracial and diverse, all over Europe,” he says. “So we went into these archives of medieval music and found this song Liten Karin. We felt like this gave a portrait of gender and class in that time. Matt, who is from the States, can’t speak Swedish, so we shaped each syllable so he would pass more or less as Swedish.” To play the steel drum, the duo prepared it “like John Cage” with screws, and used jets of water to make a vibrato sound. “We also played mostly between the notes, and we wanted to play as soft as possible.” The result is a sound that’s far from calypso, using the drum’s resonance to suggest depth and cultural exchange while signalling pressing contemporary issues. The auction in New York never materialised, so after waiting a few years, Sims and Dreijer released the EP themselves, when the topics felt even more relevant.
Simultaneously, Dreijer took on two more transformative roles that would completely reshape his creative outlook. In 2011, he went back to teaching, running a music school at a refugee camp in Berlin, and he travelled to Tunisia to work with multi-instrumentalist and composer Houeida Hedfi – a collaboration that lasted almost a decade. “Working with Houeida reprogrammed my understanding of rhythm because I played in her band and we were touring,” he says. “And the teaching, it was such a fun environment. There was less respect for the music, you just did stuff. I used to have that, but you forget that things can be more simple and direct.” These experiences helped him gather the confidence to write music under his own name, finally.
Following the Rosa Rugosa 12” that emerged in late 2023, he’s planning to release a series of tracks on different labels, before putting out his debut solo album “when it feels right”. He’s even started DJing regularly again. It’s been a long process of self-discovery, but at 42 years old, he’s more ready than ever. “It’s more important now to make warm music that gives you energy,” he says sincerely. “Usually comforting vibes are more inclusive, but who knows…” Dreijer’s voice trails off as he laughs at himself. “I’m giving myself more importance than needed.”
Rosa Rugosa is out now via Hessle Audio